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Complex Texts: Guiding Readers One Step at a Time

Maria Walther

1st Grade Teacher, Author, and Literacy Consultant from Aurora, IL
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Like you, I've been doing a lot of thinking and wondering about text complexity. As a first grade teacher, I'm pondering what that concept means for young readers and guided reading instruction. How do we support readers as they gradually climb a staircase of texts that leads them to those with greater complexity? My research-guided experience says, "Let’s take it one step at a time!"

Step 1: Get to Know Your Readers

The more we know about our readers, the better we'll be able to scaffold instruction and lead them toward independence. To explain, let's zoom in on two assessments that help me when guiding readers:

  1. A reading interest survey
  2. A running record

I begin every year with a quick survey about my students' favorite topics. The data I collect helps me make instructional decisions that impact my book selections for read-aloud, for guided reading and for my students' individual book boxes. If I know that Sam is interested in trains, then I might entice him with a book like Freight Train by Donald Crews. After he's hooked, I'll hand him an informational book about trains that is a bit more complex but uses the same vocabulary as Freight Train, and so on.

When I do a running record with Sam on a book he's reading, I learn precisely which area(s) of reading to target during my guided reading lesson. Selecting a specific instructional focus -- like self-monitoring, decoding, fluency, vocabulary or comprehension -- strengthens the guided reading lesson. With a teaching focus and the students' interests in mind, I select a text. That leads me to the next step, because in order to select the most powerful books, you have to know the books.

Step 2: Get to Know Your Books

To guide readers toward reading increasingly complex texts, we have to put books in their hands that interest them and that will help them apply the essential strategies and skills. I have an idea for your professional learning community that will help you learn more about your books. Take a few hours to read and discuss the books you use for guided reading. Pass out some sticky notes, and invite your colleagues to jot down how they might use each book. Categorize the books by teaching focus:

  • Self-Monitoring: Does the book have a clear illustration to text match?
  • Decoding: Does the text contain known sight words along with those that might pose a decoding challenge like multi-syllabic words, words with endings, and so on?
  • Fluency: Does the story include dialogue?
  • Vocabulary: Does the book include vocabulary or concepts that are easily defined using context clues, visual cues or the glossary?
  • Comprehension: Does the character change over time? Would it be a good book to discuss the lesson or the moral of the story?

Assign a recorder to compile your notes so that you can access them during the school year. Now that you know your books, you and your colleagues can work together to read and think about how to refine your instruction.

Step 3: Get to Know More About Powerful Teaching Frameworks

Professional books and collegial conversations are so helpful when ramping up your guided reading instruction. If you haven't read Jan Richardson's The Next Step in Guided Reading, I would recommend that you add it to your "someday" professional book list. Jan"s book helped me to understand how guided reading lessons change as children progress through the stages of reading development, from emergent readers to fluent readers. In addition, she clearly lays out a three-pronged approach to teaching guided reading that includes word study and guided writing. Whether you choose Jan's book or another resource on guided reading, engaging in ongoing professional conversations is the key to making changes in your instruction.

The Most Important Step: Enjoy Your Young Readers!

During our hectic days, we barely have time to go to the bathroom, let alone have lengthy, personalized conversations with our students. When we gather our young people for guided reading, it's another time during the day to look each student in the eye and say, "I'm glad you're here! Let's learn together!"

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Lorena Schroeder's picture
Lorena Schroeder
Elementary school teacher originally from NY teaching in Warren, OH

I enjoyed reading your ideas, and I especially liked your interest inventory. I will definitely use that idea to help me match books to readers!

Lindsey's picture
2nd Grade Teacher

I really enjoyed reading your blog post. For me, guided reading is something I struggle with. I am constantly wondering if I am doing it correctly and if I am helping my students in the correct ways. In my classroom, we choose books for our book buckets by finding "good fit" books. As I watch my students engaging in silent reading with their book buckets, I notice that they are not always engaged in their books. I never thought of doing a reading survey with my students to see what books they actually enjoyed reading. What a wonderful idea. I can really see this as a great motivating tool for reluctant readers and what better way to bond with a child than to give them a book that they are interested in reading.

I really appreciate your "cheat sheet" on how to categorize books for guided reading lessons. I am always searching online for good books to use, but your categorizing help will allow me to use books that are already in my classroom library that the children may be familiar with.

Thank you for suggesting the book, The Next Step in Guided Reading. I am absolutely going to add this to my reading list for winter break. I have mid-year reading assessments coming up in January and would love to have new strategies to use based upon those assessment results.

I am excited to go in to school tomorrow with a more positive outlook on guided reading instruction!

Sara's picture

Hi, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I am a Reading Interventionist for Kindergarten and this is my second year. My district has just started to do guided reading groups in grades k-3. A lot of the teachers are struggling with this change and with doing running records. I have done running records before but not the series we are using now. I feel I understand how guiding reading works my issue is that I work with the low students in kindergarten and I some of them can not read a preA so it gets frustrating doing running records on these students for me and for them. Thanks for the book recommendation. I will more than likely be adding that to my personal library. Thanks again for your tips!

Maria Walther's picture
Maria Walther
1st Grade Teacher, Author, and Literacy Consultant from Aurora, IL

Hi Sara! I understand your frustration if you're trying to assess Pre-A readers using a running record. You might consider a Pre-A assessment that includes letter recognition, sound knowledge, and phonemic awareness. Jan Richardson and I created one that is part of the K-2 Next Step Guided Reading Assessment. You can find more information about it at I wish you the best of luck with your kindergarten learners! Maria

Maria Walther's picture
Maria Walther
1st Grade Teacher, Author, and Literacy Consultant from Aurora, IL

Hi Lindsey, I'm glad I could give you a few tips to take back to your classroom. I've found that discovering students' reading interests is the key to motivating my young readers. Right now, the readers in one of my groups are crazy about the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems. So, for guided reading, we started an Elephant and Piggie book club. Each day, each child in the group chooses one of Mo's books to read and discuss. The books are filled with sight words and are excellent for boosting fluency and expression. Once we've read them at school, each child takes the book home to share with his or her family. They are motivated to read all 20 books. I know that when they accomplish that goal they will be much better readers:)

Lindsey's picture
2nd Grade Teacher


When I taught kindergarten I also used just a letter id and phonemic awareness assessment for my non-readers. We were not required to do running records on the students that were not able to read. If they were not able to identify their letters and corresponding sounds, there was not way they could read so the assessment didn't have to be done.

Lindsey's picture
2nd Grade Teacher

I will be ordering some Mo Willems books tomorrow! What a great suggestion.

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